Reviews

Greg Jenner’s Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity

Written by Melissa Kane. Greg Jenner's most recent book covers the history of celebrity. By juxtaposing historical examples alongside the contemporary, he encourages us to reconsider our own notions of celebrity and its accompanying culture.

The work of Greg Jenner, a public historian, and presenter, is probably most familiar to us from behind the camera lens of the Emmy and BAFTA award-winning children’s show, Horrible Histories,as well as rudely hilarious, chart-topping podcast, You’re Dead to MeHowever. His recent dive into the history of the celebrity is an intriguing, complex, and hilarious endeavour that encapsulates the nature of popular culture and our absolute obsession with superstar personalities, from Byron to Kean, to the evolution of the modern Kardashian.

He introduces his work on celebrity with a beautiful (yet ironic) anecdote of a date familiar to almost any music fan; the death of David Bowie and the shockwaves it produced within the music industry, as well as the wider emotional impact of the loss from a cultural and societal perspective. Jenner aims in his work however not only to tell us the stories of the celebrities we might know, such as Dickens but also “about the megastars you didn’t even know existed” including the amazing stories of Clara the Rhino and Brenda Frazier. He limits his analysis to VIP culture pre-1950, so as not to fall into the trap of a Monroe or Beatles biography, although does make frequent references to modern-day examples in order to create a seamless comparison between past and present fame.

Working within this model, Dead Famous spotlights features of celebrity that both we as modern readers as well as contemporary audiences would recognise, from their discovery and burst into fame, to the growing presence of the ‘fandom’ (both in its negative and positive senses!) as well as the decline of stardom and its cause. Jenner encapsulates the meaning of celebrity as a cultural phenomenon, as a functioning element of our modern society, a “foundation upon which we build our identities” that remain our remote, often one-sided companions through life and death.

It causes us to reconsider our own notions of celebrity and celebrity culture, one that had existed and thrived long before the age of the internet, television, or even radio, and how these singers, dancers, actors, highwaymen, and sportsmen were able to catch the eyes of nations. He also looks at the much darker side of celebrity culture, when public fascination went too far, falling into obsessive stalking, trolling, and body-shaming as well as the economics of celebrity that funded the likes of Bill Richmond and Pompeius Musclosus.

Overall, the work is a fascinating exploration of an element of popular culture, that not only has a rich history within our own lifetimes, but also an element of evolution, development, and decline. Jenner states that this book is not intended just for those who read or are interested in history, but also for those who love a good laugh and want to hear more about a fascinating part of our society and lives. With over 125 stories and icons, Dead Famous is informative, entertaining, and an otherwise hilarious work that lives up to its hype and will encapsulate readers – history lovers and haters alike!

Written by Melissa Kane

Greg Jenner is a public historian and broadcaster. He hosts two BBC podcasts and works on the BBC comedy series, Horrible Histories. His recent book Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity was published in 2020 by W&N Books.

Bibliography

Jenner, Greg, Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity, From Bronze Age to Silver Screen. London: W&N Books, 2020.

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